AJ McCarron will face the biggest challenge of his short career Saturday when he'll take the field and look to lead the Bengals to a Wild Card win over the rival Steelers. There's a big weight on his shoulders as he fills in for an injured Andy Dalton, but McCarron can take some solace in knowing that he'll have a security blanket in one of the NFL's most talented and prolific tight ends in the league out there with him.
Tyler Eifert has emerged this season as a superstar at the position -- a matchup nightmare with great size and reliable hands -- catching 13 touchdowns in just 13 games, leading all tight ends and ending up just one score short of the league-lead. He'll almost certainly be a focal point in Hue Jackson's offensive game plan on Saturday.
After going back and looking at the tape over his last couple of games, two schemes stood out to me for how Cincinnati can utilize Eifert against the Steelers.
First up ...
The screen game
Here's what I like about the Bengals' use of Tyler Eifert in the screen game. On the surface, pre-snap and even for a little bit post-snap, it's extremely hard to pick up on as a defender.
On a lot of screen plays to running backs, you'll see the offensive linemen get into their pass blocking set for a half-second or so before releasing downfield to block, and the defense can always key in on the running back's release in reading the play and stopping it. With tight end screens, which the Bengals like to use, it looks just like a normal pass play for the first two beats. This is a big deal.
Watch below. The offensive linemen all get into their pass blocking sets. The running back (Jeremy Hill) releases through the line as a typical underneath option. At the last second, Eifert, who starts out on the offensive right side as a pass blocker, lets go of his block, lets the defender go upfield and turns to find the ball for the screen. The key here is that the Ravens' defense has bitten on the fake and are aggressively attacking upfield.
This means Eifert is past the defensive line and into the second level almost immediately, with room to run and blockers in front of him.
The other part of this equation is that Eifert is very athletic and moves extremely well for a 6'6, 251-pound human being. That was probably never more evident than on this next play.
The Bengals did this same thing against the Steelers a few weeks earlier. From the other side of the formation, they did a delayed release downfield, and after Eifert sold the pass-blocking set, he released and caught the ball in stride. That's where, again, he does what most people his size cannot do. Especially that sick little spin move. How many 6'6, 250-pounders are that light on their feet?
The Steelers have seen this play, so they'll be ready for it this weekend, of course. But it's not like the Bengals hadn't put it on tape before their Week 14 matchup. Here's the same concept from Week 12. Again, it's just so hard to pick up as the defense.
We'll see how aggressive the Steelers are with their pass rush, but this concept is really great for 1) mitigating a strong pass rush and counter-attacking a blitz, and 2) it's a relatively easy pass for McCarron and could help to get him into rhythm and pick up chunks of yardage. Keep an eye out for it on Saturday.
Once McCarron gets a feel for the game and finds himself feeling comfortable, Hue Jackson may be inclined to dial up a deep shot or two. That's where Eifert can be deadly is up the seams.
The seam killer
The Bengals use Eifert as a de facto slot receiver at times, but they also line him up in line as a traditional tight end, setting up in a three-point stance. With his versatility, they can attack a number of coverages, and one deadly strategy they've used a lot this year is by sending him up the seam. Take this play against the Rams.
Eifert is lined up on the right of the formation in a two-point stance. The Rams crowd the box, as it's a run-heavy personnel grouping (three tight ends). After motioning Tyler Croft out to the right wing, the ball is snapped. Eifert releases out of his stance, widening first before running up the numbers. As he's being passed from the zone-dropping linebackers into the middle of the field -- where he's the safety's problem -- Andy Dalton hits him in stride.
The real key to this play was for Dalton to hold that deep safety toward the middle of the field. Watch how he uses his helmet and eyes to keep that safety -- Rodney McCleod -- between the hashes. The pump fake works like a charm, too.
McCleod is now beat, and Eifert's slow arching route up the numbers lands him in the vulnerable part of the zone. Easy money.
The Bengals can run that seam route from a number of personnel groupings and formations, though, and this "four verts" play against the Ravens is a great example. This is a throw that AJ McCarron can make -- want to know how I know? This is AJ McCarron making this throw.
After motioning right to left, Eifert settles in behind Mohamed Sanu in the tight slot. He then runs another long, arching route as he widens out toward the numbers, and he finds himself in a soft spot in the zone.
The all-22 tells how. The Ravens look like they're in a Cover-4 or Cover-2 combo type of scheme here with two high safeties and cornerbacks on the outside dropping down the sideline. Sanu (who starts in the slot left, just above Eifert) has the key route here. Sanu occupies the deep safety on Eifert's side. On the outside, the receiver route up the sideline occupies the corner. That allows Eifert to sneak in between.
It's a hell of a throw by McCarron, too.
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The big story for the Steelers-Bengals game this weekend is that Andy Dalton will not play. The irony, of course, is that while many have said over the years that the Bengals can't win a playoff game with Dalton at quarterback, those same people may now be saying they can't win one without him. Whether any of that's true, we don't know, but we'll find out soon if Cincy can end their postseason drought with a backup quarterback at the helm.
If McCarron can continue to be a game manager and facilitate the Bengals offense without creating turnovers, it gives them a good chance to win. If he can make a throw or two downfield up the seam and get the Bengals touchdowns like those outlined above, they'll be in great shape.
Tyler Eifert is going to be an absolutely key and crucial target for McCarron on Saturday. With Pittsburgh keying in on A.J. Green on the outside plus trying to stop the Bengals' run game, the opportunities are going to be there for Eifert to step up create some big plays. If McCarron can deliver him the football using some of the concepts outlined above, the Steelers could be in trouble.